The Gunn High girls soccer team is proof that experience isn’t everything.
Despite being the youngest squad in the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League El Camino Division, the Titans sit in second place with three games remaining.
Gunn’s 18-player roster includes nine freshmen and only two seniors. Six of the freshmen start, including versatile field players Molly Wilkinson and Lauryn Nakamitsu of Los Altos Hills. Sophomore Nicole Smith, who also lives in the Hills, is the starting goalie.
“This is my youngest team by far,” said Juan Mayora, who has coached high school soccer for more than 20 years. “We didn’t expect to be this young, but things happened.”
The Titans lost five starters – all of them all-leaguers last year – prior to the season because they were ruled ineligible; Mayora said their club coach put them in a tournament last fall that wasn’t sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation.
That put more of Gunn’s freshmen in prominent roles, and Mayora said it took time for them to adjust to the varsity game. That may explain the slow start by the Titans, who didn’t get their first win until the sixth game of the season. Gunn has lost only four games since, however, and is on pace to make the Central Coast Section playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
But the Titans’ past three postseason appearances were brief, as they lost in the first round of CCS. It’s a dubious streak team captain Natalie Hill would like to see her team snap this year.
“I really want that (playoff) win – it’s my last chance,” said the senior, who leads Gunn in scoring.
The Titans (6-3, league 7-6-3 overall) may go as far as their freshmen take them – all nine play regularly – and Hill has faith in them.
“The freshmen have worked well with the juniors and seniors,” she said. “We always forget they’re freshmen. They’ve stepped up big time.”
That includes Wilkinson and Nakamitsu, who recently moved into the starting lineup. They’ve both played stopper on defense and in the midfield.
Wilkinson “has made some key assists,” Mayora said, while Nakamitsu is coming on strong after being injured for much of the season. In her first game back, Nakamitsu scored Gunn’s first goal in a 2-1 victory over Milpitas Jan. 17.
“That goal pumped up the team,” the coach said. “It was her first and only shot of the game. Then the next game (a 2-0 win at Cupertino), she scored again.”
While Nakamitsu has started scoring goals, Smith has prevented opponents from doing the same. The first-year keeper has posted three shutouts in Gunn’s past six games.
“Nicole’s done a great job,” said Hill, a standout goalie on her MVLA Soccer Club team. “She’s picked it up very well.”
A field player last year, Smith volunteered to try goalie after the Titans lost their returning keeper to a knee injury before the season began.
“Nicole took on the responsibility and has worked hard,” Mayora said. “She has matured a lot and is coming through.”
By doing so, Hill has been able to remain a field player – an opportunity she relishes.
“It’s a big change,” said Hill, headed to UC Santa Barbara as a goalie next fall, “but it’s nice to take a break.”
Hill played in the midfield for Gunn as a freshman and sophomore, moving to forward last season. She led the Titans in scoring and was named league MVP.
Last season’s team finished a close second to Los Altos in the El Camino Division. The Eagles have ascended to the De Anza Division, leaving Gunn to fend off Fremont for first place. The Firebirds all but wrapped up the El Camino crown with Friday’s 2-1 win at Gunn. Fremont, which topped the Titans 3-1 last month, improved to 8-0-1 in league.
Gunn is scheduled to visit Milpitas 3:30 p.m. today and host Cupertino 5:30 p.m. Friday.